REVIEW: Gnomeo & Juliet Proves Lawn Ornaments Have Feelings Too. So There!
Underage youth defy their feuding families by falling madly in love, sleep together before marriage and end up dying tragically because of crossed signals. What a dud of a story! You know what it needs to dress it up? Garden gnomes.
A sturdy story can withstand multiple reimaginings, and if Romeo and Juliet can survive Stephen Sondheim, it can probably survive pretty much anything. Still, there is an occasional line that must be drawn. And I draw it at garden gnomes. Gnomeo & Juliet, the latest animation from Disney, plucks Shakespeare's tale of teen heartbreak from fair Verona and plants it in a well-manicured English neighborhood, where two warring groups of lawn ornaments -- the Jets, so to speak, in the blue hats, the Sharks in the red -- live on either side of a garden wall. Both groups go about their usual garden business in a joyfully Smurflike manner, until one group has the nerve to provoke the other: A Red might smash a Blue's hat, for example, or beat his gnomy ass in one of the warring gangs' periodic lawnmower drag races.
It's a problem, then, when Red gnome Juliet (Emily Blunt) meets Blue gnome Gnomeo (James McAvoy) as, daring minx that she is, she's trying to capture an exotic orchid for the Reds' garden. As they reach for the flower at the same time, their collective plaster gooses are cooked. The two find a way to meet again, although that means hiding their forbidden love from the leaders of their respective clans, Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith).
Things go from bad to worse when Red-team bully Tybalt (Jason Statham) attacks Gnomeo's bestie, Benny (Matt Lucas), nearly smashing him into a million little pieces. Tempers flare and warfare ensues, which makes it hard for Gnomeo and Juliet to find chances to beam at one another with their glassy stares.
It's cute, all right. But even as Shakespearean tragedies aimed at kids go, Gnomeo & Juliet is a slender conceit that stretches itself way too thin. The director is Kelly Asbury who is also one of the nine writers -- not including William S. -- listed in the movie's IMDb credits. (That's about one writer for each of the movie's successful gags.) There's nothing really wrong with the quality of the animation here, or with the character design: Garden gnomes are actually well-suited to modern animation, since their painted skin doesn't have to look creepily realistic. Juliet, with her sparkly eyes and button nose, is an appealing little scrapper, while Gnomeo, with his beefy little forearms, make an affable jack-the-lad.
But who ever decided it was a good idea to stage Romeo and Juliet in a milieu where there's not much at stake that a little Krazy Glue can't fix? Of course, this Romeo and Juliet is for little tykes -- we can't have people dying of broken hearts, or sword wounds, or anything unsavory like that. But then, why bother at all? Gnomeo & Juliet tries to get by on a million and one cutesie-poo little touches: Juliet readies herself for her big date with Gnomeo by waxing her stumpy little legs -- with duct tape; a gnome arms himself for battle with acorns as ammo; a shapely Dolly Partognome (her voice belongs to Parton herself) waves the start flag at the big lawnmower drag race; Juliet's nerdy but family-approved suitor Paris (Stephen Merchant) presents her with a plant he's developed himself, a hybrid of foxglove and buttercup. (He calls it "foxbutt.")
But the adorableness of it all is simply wearying, and not even a selection of repurposed Elton John songs ("Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" becomes the soundtrack for the lawnmower drag race; "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" is the aural wallpaper for the date-preparation montage) can do much to up the movie's energy level. My favorite scenes were the ones involving minor characters: A small subplot involving a lonely lawn flamingo, for example, offers a surprisingly adult take on love gone wrong.
And the best characters are a group of tiny stone rabbits who can be pouty crybabies or fierce, pointy-toothed warriors, depending on their mood. In their greatest moment, they send secret signals to one another by clicking and cocking their ears, casting great shadows via clever use of lawn floodlights. Romeo and Juliet doesn't need the plaster treatment. But how about The Dirty Dozen with lawn rabbits? Now that would be a movie.